Melrose Leadership Academy in Oakland is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Carolyn Jones/EdSource)

California’s political and education leaders have embarked on a bold messaging initiative to convince millions of children stuck at home, probably for the rest of the school year, that schools aren’t really closed but are actually in session — just in a different location.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond is making the distinction that school campuses are closed, but school itself is not out.

Gov. Gavin Newsom offered a slight variation on that message on Wednesday: “Schools are closed, but classes are in.” And, he implied, students might actually make more progress holding those classes remotely if they are done well. “Just because schools are closed doesn’t mean we can’t accelerate learning in California.”

Orange County Superintendent of Schools Al Mijares had another version while explaining his recommendation that schools in his county remain closed for the rest of the year. “Students may be home, but our schools are still open for business,” he wrote.

What will make getting this message across immeasurably more difficult is that it is what most Californians would rather not hear, and many dread getting — that students will not be going back to their familiar school environments for months — and most likely not until the fall.  High school seniors would be going back at all.

It is a message that also flies in the face of the experience of many Californians, including parents, for whom school feels out.

Embracing the state’s message will require undoing the muscle memory of associating school with getting up in the morning — eagerly by some, reluctantly by others — navigating complex school schedules, being inspired or entertained by a favorite teacher and, most crucially, connecting with friends during class or recess. And then there are the extracurricular activities that, for many students, make school bearable and keep them returning day after day, year after year.

Now what educators are offering is a school experience stripped of all those experiences — and in an entirely different form than most students know how to handle, certainly not for an extended period, nor for the entire curriculum.

As Orange County’s Mijares wrote on Wednesday, “Distance learning must no longer be seen as a tool that augments the instructional program; it now must drive it.”

Online instruction

What educators have going for them is that online instruction could provide a welcome alternative to sitting around with little or nothing to do, for hours each day. The more teachers are able to make the experience a social one, and more engaging than most classes that depend on grades to motivate students, the more likely they are to hold students’ attention.

One silver lining for students who have fallen behind on credits to graduate, or have not done well enough in the A-G sequence of courses to qualify for admission to the state’s public universities: they’ll probably be able to take distance learning classes on a pass-fail basis. For students applying to UC and CSU, they won’t have to take the ACT or SAT admissions tests, for this year at least.

All this is happening when most districts have yet to formally embrace Newsom and Thurmond’s recommendation that they close their schools — OK, their campuses — through the school year. Thurmond has made it clear he is not directing them to do so. That, he said, is a decision that is up to the local school district. Gov. Newsom once again said that it is his “expectation” that schools will not reopen — without telling schools directly that they should bite the bullet and close for the rest of the year.

That, however, seems to be the inexorable direction schools will move. In addition to Orange County, on Wednesday Los Angeles County School Superintendent Debra Duardo also recommended that school campuses remain “physically closed” in her county’s 80 districts. But she too stressed that “school is in session and learning will continue.”

School districts in the county like Pasadena Unified quickly went along with her recommendation, as well as South Pasadena Unified, which emphasized to parents that “the 2019-20 school year is not over.”

Now, all Duardo and her fellow educators have to do is convince the 1.4 million students in her county of that message. If they are successful in delivering on its promise, they could transform what could be wasted months into productive ones that students might end up actually feeling good about.

Story originally published by EdSource.